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Be kind to yourself
What we eat affects how we feel, but, unfortunately, how we feel affects what we eat! If we feel stressed, we make poorer food choices, which sets up a circle of feeling bad.
Right now, the number one rule is to be kind to yourself. If you're making poor food choices, then that's a natural outcome of the circumstances. It's not going to kill you. Rest assured you're not alone.
If you'd like to try to break the pattern, I have some suggestions for you.
Why we make poor food choices when stressed
In this time of #StayAtHome and the stress of the pandemic, we often turn to food as a coping mechanism to deal with our feelings. While this may help in the very short term, eating to soothe and ease our feelings often leads to regret and guilt, and may increase our negative feelings.
A study by Deakin University found that stress is a strong influencer on what we eat, and that what we eat in turn can affect our mental health and our subsequent ability to handle stressful situations.
Another study in the journal Molecular Psychiatry found that our stress levels may actually undermine our healthy food choices. Amazingly, people who ate healthy food while stressed did not register more robust biological markers in their blood than people who ate less healthy food.
There is a reason that we turn to quick food fixes.
Research has shown that chronic daily stress releases a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol increases our appetite and may also ramp up motivation in general, including the motivation to eat. Studies show that increased levels of cortisol cause an increase in our desire for sweet, fatty foods.
Stress, the hormones it unleashes, and the effects of high-fat, sugary "comfort foods" push us toward overeating. Once ingested, fat and sugar-filled foods seem to have a feedback effect that inhibits activity in the parts of the brain that produce and process stress and related emotions.
So part of our stress-induced craving for those foods may be that they counteract stress.
We've all moved into a chronic level of stress
This effect is related to how eating high-fat and high-sugar food causes the release of dopamine, which brings about short-term stress relief. This good feeling naturally builds a habit of seeking stress relief by eating non-nutritious foods. But unfortunately, the relief is short-lived, and we keep going back for more.
Once a stressful episode is over, cortisol levels should fall, but if the stress doesn't go away — or if a person's stress response gets stuck in the "on" position — cortisol may stay elevated. That's what is happening during this pandemic - we are living with elevated chronic stress levels.
Some research suggests a gender difference in stress-coping behaviour, with women being more likely to turn to food and men to alcohol or smoking. And a Finnish study that included over 5,000 men and women showed that obesity was associated with stress-related eating in women but not in men.
How to break the vicious circle of stress and poor food choices
Watching the daily news is enough to make us reach for a comforting snack. It's in this connection that the answer to change lies.
Here are two techniques you can apply to stop automatically reaching for comfort foods - those high-sugar high-fat snacks that ultimately make us feel guilty.
Self-monitoring helps you become more aware of what triggers you to eat in the moment, and to be more mindful of your food choices and portions. It also helps you stay focused on achieving long-term progress.
Try using this kind of positive self-coping statement: "I need to understand what triggered my overeating, so I can create a plan to cope with it if I re-encounter this trigger."
Set Up Inconvenience
The focus here is on stimulus control, such as not eating in particular settings, and not keeping unhealthy food choices in your home.
Try using this kind of positive self-coping statement: "I realise that I am overeating. I need to think about how I can stop this pattern of behaviour."
And, finally, add these thoughts to your daily routine:
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